In A Dangerous Deceit, Eccles frames the death of three men around the larger story of the inhabitants of the quiet market town of Folbury and the complicated relationship between two age-old families, the Rees-Talbots and the Scroopes. Opening as Margaret Rees-Talbot and Symon Scroope plan their marriage, this tale has them both anxious to find not only love but also a warm place and purpose in a bleak and coldly shunning world.
Margaret isn't entirely sold on the good-looking Reverend Symon, whose fascination for her seems almost too good to be true. While Margaret is riddled with old hangups and worried whether or not she really wants to marry him, Symon is determined not to start their married life in Alma House, the ancestral home of Margaret and her argumentative, headstrong brother Felix who has recently been filling his head with “a bunch of preposterous socialist ideas” from his exotic, left-wing university friends.
The unexpected death of Felix and Margaret’s father, one-armed Osbert Rees-Talbot (who slipped under the bath water and was unable to save himself), throws everything into disarray. Though Margaret’s grief for her father is natural, she must rise to the occasion and meet the obligations of her family. She finds herself consciously waging a battle with her own psyche that persists in tearing holes in the seams of a burgeoning “forever” kind of relationship that she fears might actually be the real thing.
Eccles spends much capital on detailing Osbert’s past in the South African Boar War and his connection to Lady Maude, Symon’s aristocratic mother. Lady Maude’s memories, drifting down through the years and refusing to be banished, lend heartache and tension of the story and provide the “whodunit” scenario that characterizes much of this author’s work. For Lady Maude, there’s a part of her past life she prefers not to dwell on—that is until Symon’s engagement brings it all back. Maude can do little but think about the handsome Rees-Talbot brothers, Osbert and Hamer, both dashing Army officers who she met in Cape Town after her recovery from measles.
The author frames Maude’s sojourn to South Africa around her current life, regressing her back to her existence at Maxstead House. The discovery of a body in a field nearby sends her into a maelstrom of disturbed feelings. Labeled “the Snowman,” the body is that of a youngish, well-built man. Only war-scarred DI Herbert Reardon (fresh from his experiences in Eccles’ earlier novel Broken Music) and Sergeant Joe Gilmore can succeed with their easy ability to investigate the events leading up to the discovery of the body and also the possible murder of local garage owner Arthur Aston.
In a case full of unlikely leads with nothing to connect them, the possible suspicious demise of Aston adds yet another murder into the mix not two months apart. Reardon and Gilmore uncover a delightful array of suspects, but the focus soon turns to Aston’s small engineering workshop on Henrietta street, where they become convinced that Eileen Gerrity, the middle-aged woman who actually runs the office, knows more than she’s telling—as does Lily, Aston’s unhappy wife who may have just decided to get rid of an “unsatisfactory husband.”
This is England just after the Great War where themes of upper-class entitlement, the nobility under precarious circumstances and the working-class view of aristocracy are pivotal to the story. So are blackmail, the link to South Africa, the decaying Maxstead Mansion, the cold winter weather, the growing feelings between Joe Gilmore and Lady Maude’s maid, and the bad blood between Osbert and Aston, thrown together by their respective fates. Eccles expertly unfurls the nuanced revelations between each character, adding tension and literal insult to injury, leading us head-first into a shocking denouement with surprising repercussions for both the Scroopes and the Rees-Talbots.